Whenever team executives around the league watch the confetti fall on a new Super Bowl champion, they quickly evaluate the winning roster to determine if there are lessons to be learned from the team's success. Evaluators assess how the champs used the draft, free agency, trades and the waiver wire to build a squad good enough to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season.
After watching Philadelphia knock off New England in Super Bowl LII behind a backup quarterback playing at an MVP level, NFL general managers and scouts are sitting in pre-combine meetings discussing the Eagles and which ideas or team-building tactics can be gleaned from their triumph.
1) Invest in the QB2 position.
How many times have we heard general managers and coaches call the NFL "a quarterback league"? Too many times to count, right? That's why Philadelphia's approach to the position could become the new standard. While every NFL team is committed to finding a young franchise quarterback to build around, a la Carson Wentz, the Eagles wisely committed money and resources to the QB2 spot.
Sure, Philly took a similar approach in the 2016 offseason -- signing Chase Daniel to a three-year, $21 million contract to back up then-starting quarterback Sam Bradford -- but Nick Foles was a legitimate NFL MVP candidate during a previous stint in Philadelphia. Remember, Foles compiled a 14-4 record during his last two seasons (2013 and '14) with the Eagles prior to his return in 2017. He posted gaudy numbers in 2013 -- a 27:2 touchdown to interception ratio and a 119.2 passer rating -- while leading Philadelphia to the NFC East title. Although No. 9 eventually fell out of favor with Chip Kelly, he had shown the football world that he could certainly play at a high level when surrounded by playmakers in a scheme designed around his strengths.
Fast-forward to the 2017 offseason, and the Eagles made a decision to bring Foles back and ditch Daniel. On the outside, the move was met with quizzical looks, based on the initial investment made in Daniel, but team officials obviously felt Foles gave them a better chance of winning if he had to play significant snaps.
"Our priority, as you've seen, is to make sure we have the very best possible other starting quarterback," Lurie told reporters at Super Bowl LII Opening Night. "I won't even call [Foles] a backup, because we had him evaluated as a very strong quarterback. He's been 18-5 for us over the last 23 games when Nick has started a game and finished. His quarterback rating in the postseason -- he's a big-time, big-game player. That's Nick.
"And we utilized about $12 million to have a second quarterback. And it may have seemed irrational, but I remember the phone call when it was (executive vice president of football operations) Howie (Roseman) and I talking, and we said, 'We have an opportunity to do this. Do you have any reservations of using this $12 million this way versus other positions?' And we both agreed this was absolutely the right thing to do. We never knew it would come to this, but we knew that Nick could win big games for us."
Think about that: The Eagles doled out legit cash at the QB2 position as an insurance plan -- so the team could remain competitive if the starter were sidelined. Naturally, it is easier to make this kind of decision when your top signal-caller is playing on his rookie deal, but the team's commitment to the backup quarterback -- or "second starter" -- clearly paid serious dividends for the Eagles down the stretch. Foles' stat lines from the NFC Championship Game (26 for 33, 352 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INT, 141.4 passer rating) and Super Bowl (28 for 43, 373 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT, 106.1 passer rating) are eye-popping.
With the Minnesota Vikings also finding success in a backup quarterback (Case Keenum), we could see more teams commit more money and resources to the QB2 spot, allowing championship-caliber squads to compete, with or without the franchise quarterback on the field.
2) Build around the offensive and defensive lines.
I'm not in the construction business, but I know you must build a house on a solid foundation. When I look at the Eagles' roster and depth chart, it is apparent that this championship squad revolves around the offensive and defensive lines. Although the quarterback and playmakers command the attention of fantasy footballers, astute team-builders know that a dominant front line on either side of the ball will always give a team a chance to consistently win in the NFL.
The presence of an elite offensive line can enable a team to field a top-tier rushing attack without a marquee running back in the fold. In addition, a stout O-line will allow the quarterback to consistently throw from a clean pocket, which gives even average quarterbacks the chance to thrive. Studying the Eagles' depth chart along the offensive front, they have assembled a talented quintet that features a pair of Pro Bowlers on the edges (Jason Peters and Lane Johnson) with another all-star on the interior (Jason Kelce). The team supplemented the trio with a big-money offensive guard (Brandon Brooks, who inked a five-year, $40 million deal in 2016) and a pair of physical interior blockers (Stefan Wisniewski and Chance Warmack) vying for time as the fifth starter. With Halapoulivaati Vaitai filling in admirably for the injured Peters in the second half of the season, the Eagles' depth and talent along the front line allowed them to anchor an offense that didn't feature a 1,000-yard rusher or 1,000-yard receiver -- something we haven't seen from a Super Bowl winner since the 2003 New England Patriots.
Most team-builders wish to form their offensive line primarily through the draft, but interestingly, the Eagles have mixed and matched top picks (Johnson) with marquee free agents, (Peters and Brooks) as well as developmental guys (Kelce and Vaitai) and cast-offs (Warmack). That's a testament to the college and pro scouting departments working together to fortify the O-line by any means necessary.
On defense, the Eagles have assembled a collection of former early-round selections (first- and second-rounders) capable of dominating the game individually and collectively. Philadelphia spent top-15 picks on Brandon Graham (No. 13 overall in 2010), Fletcher Cox (No. 12 in 2012) and Derek Barnett (No. 14 in 2017) and used a second-rounder on Vinny Curry (No. 59 in 2012). With Chris Long (the No. 2 overall pick in 2008) and Tim Jernigan (No. 48 in 2014) respectively acquired via free agency and trade, the Eagles have a bunch of elite athletes and playmakers occupying the top spots on the D-line depth chart.
Considering how a disruptive defensive line can mask issues on the back end through the presence of a persistent pass rush or run-stopping front four, Philadelphia's investment up front has given the coaching staff enough weaponry to whip opponents with a deep and talented rotation that controls the game in the trenches. In a pass-happy league where affecting the quarterback is every defensive coordinator's priority, the Eagles' collection of talent should prompt others to invest in the bigs this offseason.
OK, yeah, this D-line didn't exactly take over in Super Bowl LII -- with the Eagles and Patriots setting myriad offensive records -- but Mr. Graham sure made a game-changing play when Philly needed it most.
3) Don't be afraid to scour the free-agent and trade markets for key cogs.
When most new general managers take the podium after being appointed to the top post, they routinely talk about building through the draft to create a championship roster. As a former college scout, I love that approach -- but I also realize you must be willing to acquire talent through other means to plug some of the biggest holes in the lineup. Studying the Eagles' roster, I'm certainly impressed with their homegrown talent (including Wentz, Johnson, Kelce, Zach Ertz, Cox, Graham, Barnett and Mychal Kendricks), but the addition of a handful of outsiders helped catapult the team over the top.
Recent free-agent signees like WR Alshon Jeffery, S Malcolm Jenkins and S Rodney McLeod addressed huge concerns for the team while also adding leadership to their respective position groups. LeGarrette Blount was a bargain-basement acquisition last May who helped shore up the backfield. The punishing runner didn't fully fill the void as the team's lead back, but his rugged style and effectiveness as a short-yardage/goal-line hammer added a dimension to the ground attack. Patrick Robinson didn't garner headlines as a free agent last March, but he's another value-based signing that reaped huge rewards for the team as a nickel corner.
The Eagles also used the trade market to upgrade a few key spots in the lineup. Ronald Darby came over from Buffalo to serve as the team's CB1. Despite missing a chunk of the season with a dislocated ankle, he returned in time for a stretch run that saw him make some big plays in key moments. Jernigan was plucked from the Ravens' roster to give Philadelphia an energetic interior defender. He carved out a nice role as an early-down run stopper with pass-rushing skills. And last, but certainly not least ... Jay Ajayi was arguably the team's best addition -- a versatile big back with speed and explosion. He didn't top the 1,000-yard mark on the season, but his impact as a dynamic playmaker out of the backfield gave the Eagles a bruising 1-2 RB punch that sparked the league's third-ranked rushing attack.
Speaking of RB impact, I have to mention undrafted free-agent signee Corey Clement as one of the team's biggest finds. The former Wisconsin star cracked the rotation as a change-of-pace back during the regular season, but he really made his mark with a spectacular performance in Super Bowl LII as a designated playmaker in the passing game (four catches for 100 yards and a touchdown). Although the Eagles don't make a living with college free agents, the team's ability to identify an underrated player with the potential to develop into a contributor in a specific role is one of the reasons why Philadelphia finished the season on top.
Overall, the Eagles have flipped the traditional team-building model on its head by using every possible vehicle to acquire talent. Whether drafting and developing their own players, plucking potential contributors from others via trade or signing marquee guys in the open market, Roseman and Co.'s willingness to look under every rock for playmakers is something others should mimic in the coming years.
THREE AND OUT: Takeaways from Super Bowl LII's All-22 Coaches Film
1) The NFL's a copycat league, so I'm never surprised to see coaches swipe tactics from others, but Doug Pederson still deserves a ton of credit for borrowing portions of Chip Kelly's playbook to help Nick Foles play at an elite level during the postseason. During the Eagles' bye week prior to the Divisional Round, Pederson admittedly watched old tapes of Foles' performance during his Pro Bowl 2013 season to get some ideas on which concepts and plays were best-suited for No. 9's game.
"I've gone back and watched a lot of his tape here, (from when he was in) St. Louis, and when he was here before when I was here. The quick throw was there, a little play-action pass, the shotgun stuff," Pederson told reporters during the bye week, via 247Sports.com. "Those are all things that are in our system. We might just have to dust a few more off and get that ready to go."
Looking at Foles' stellar play throughout the postseason, it is apparent Pederson not only studied those ideas and concepts, but he put them into play to help his quarterback get into a groove. From the Eagles' increased use of quicks, RPOs (run-pass options), play-action passes and mesh concepts (crossing routes), the game plan used by Pederson during the postseason was ripped right from 2013. And in Super Bowl LII, the copycat game-planning continued. According to Pro Football Focus, Foles used some form of play-action on 44.2 percent of his dropbacks, which was well above league average. In addition to the heavy usage of play-action in the game plan, the Eagles featured particular routes that were right in Foles' wheelhouse. On his 43 pass attempts, 61 percent of his throws were hitches, crossers and go-routes. Those are not only easy reads for the quarterback, but they tie in well with the strengths of the Eagles' receivers.
For instance, Jeffery is a jump-ball specialist adept at winning 50-50 balls down the field due to his length, athleticism and leaping ability. Thus, it's sensible for him to have five of his eight targets on go-routes. Agholor has emerged as a dynamic slot receiver this season. He routinely sneaks past defenders with a little wiggle and burst to settle into open areas between the hashes. He was targeted 10 times in the game, with four targets on various crossing routes over the middle of the field. Torrey Smith is regarded as the team's best vertical threat, based on his ability to deliver big plays throughout his career. The Patriots entered the game well aware of his ability to flip the field on a deep post or go-route, so their defenders were expected to play a little softer to take away shot plays. The Eagles attacked those tactics by repeatedly throwing hitches to No. 82. Although Smith saw three hitches (out of nine targets) head in his direction for minimal gains, the use of the quick game to the team's designated speedster opened up the field for Foles.
Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, I was shocked at how many repeats (running the same concept over and over out of various formations) the Eagles were able to use to pick apart the Patriots' defense. For instance, the Eagles used the mesh route (low crossing route at 5 yards from one side of the field, high crossing route at about 6 yards from the opposite side of the field, with a 12-yard sit-down or dig route over the top, while the running back executes a rail route down the boundary) out of 2x2 and 3x1 formations from multiple personnel groupings. On this play, the quarterback is instructed to take a peek at the running back heading down the boundary on his initial read before targeting the crosser heading to that side of the field with his second read. If neither route comes open, the quarterback will look for the sit-down or the backside crosser as his final option. Against man coverage, the combination of crossing routes creates natural picks all over the field, leaving someone free on a catch-and-run play. We saw Clement produce a couple of big plays on the rail route in this concept (55-yard reception, 22-yard TD catch) with Ertz (critical fourth-and-1 play in the fourth quarter) and Agholor also snagging balls on this concept.
Interestingly, the mesh concept was a Chip Kelly staple during his time in Philly -- one that was featured prominently in Foles' sensational 2013 season. Smart move by Pederson to lean on it in each of Philadelphia's playoff wins.
By the way, the Eagles didn't run nearly as many RPOs in the Super Bowl as we were led to believe. According to Pro Football Focus, they ran nine RPOs in the contest, with No. 9 handing the ball off to the running back on seven. Although Philly averaged 8.6 rush yards on those plays (compared to 5.2 rush yards per play on non-RPOs), Foles only completed two passes for 12 yards on RPO pass plays. Thus, the bulk of Foles' success in the passing game was off standard play-action. (RPO ball-handling and traditional play-action faking is similar, but the offensive line action is different.)
Overall, it really doesn't matter, because the use of deception, misdirection, quick throws and familiar routes was designed to get Foles into a rhythm. Pederson certainly succeeded in Super Bowl LII by snatching ideas from an old playbook.
2) I don't know what led Bill Belichick to bench Malcolm Butler for Super Bowl LII, but the fallout from the move will be discussed for years to come. Although there have been plenty of theories floated about the Super Bowl XLIX hero's benching -- ranging from disciplinary actions to poor practice performance to a surly attitude -- the removal of a steady fixture in the lineup was one of the biggest surprises of the game.
Prior to Super Bowl LII, Butler led all Patriots' defenders in playing time (98.1 percent of defensive snaps on the season), with only 23 missed snaps in the team's first 18 games. While he didn't play up to his 2015 Pro Bowl standard on the island in 2017, Butler filled a key role in the increased utilization of "shadow" coverage (Patriots assign certain defenders to specific receivers during the game) during the second half of the season. Butler would typically take the smaller receiver, with Stephon Gilmore instructed to blanket the big pass catcher in the lineup. With Gilmore and Butler routinely playing on the outside, Eric Rowe would primarily operate from the slot (53.7 percent prior to Super Bowl LII) in sub-packages. Patrick Chung would also drop down into the box to play as a slot or dime defender in certain packages to best match up with the opponent's personnel. Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon would share duties as the post or lurk defender in Cover 1-Rat.
Although it took some time for everyone to settle into their roles, New England's defense thrived over the final part of the season, with each defender owning his role. That's why it was so perplexing to see Butler on the sidelines during the biggest game of the year.
Butler's ability to hold his own on the island had enabled the Patriots to clog up the middle of the field with a designated lurk defender roaming between the hashes at 10-12 yards and a deep safety in the post. This has been one of the tactics the Patriots have used for years to force quarterbacks to make long throws to the sidelines instead of the high-percentage throws inside the numbers. Without Butler on the field, New England was forced to put several defenders in unfamiliar positions, and the results were disastrous. Rowe, in particular, moved from the slot to an outside position (RCB) for the majority of the game. According to Pro Football Focus, he was targeted nine times and surrendered six receptions for 79 yards and a score (a 131.3 passer rating against).
Rowe, though, was not alone in his struggles, as you can see from these PFF numbers in coverage:
-- Patrick Chung: 7 targets, 5 receptions, 70 yards, 103.3 passer rating.
-- Devin McCourty: 7 targets, 4 receptions, 20 yards, 1 TD, 101.8 passer rating.
-- Stephon Gilmore: 6 targets, 3 receptions, 19 yards, 56.9 passer rating.
-- Kyle Van Noy: 4 targets, 4 receptions, 55 yards, 118.8 passer rating.
-- Jordan Richards: 3 targets, 3 receptions, 81 yards, 118.8 passer rating.
-- Duron Harmon: 2 targets, 1 reception, 10 yards, 1 INT, 25.0 passer rating.
-- Johnson Bademosi: 1 target, 1 reception, 17 yards, 118.8 passer rating.
-- Marquis Flowers: 1 target, 1 reception, 22 yards, 1 TD, 158.3 passer rating.
-- Eric Lee: 1 target, 1 reception, 1 yard, 1 TD, 118.8 passer rating.
There's a domino effect when a guy like Butler is suddenly removed from the lineup. Just about everyone outside of Gilmore was torched.
3) It's hard to point out a defensive coordinator's ingenuity in a game where his unit surrendered more than 500 passing yards, but Jim Schwartz deserves credit for his decision to put Malcolm Jenkins on James White in man coverage. While most of us assumed Schwartz would use his Swiss Army Knife safety on Rob Gronkowski in an attempt to neutralize the Patriots' most lethal offensive weapon, the Eagles decided to take away the underrated producer in the passing game. White finished the regular season with 56 receptions for 429 yards and three touchdowns as the team's mismatch playmaker on the perimeter.
The Patriots routinely line up in an empty formation with No. 28 on the outside. Brady will motion White into the backfield to determine whether the defense is in man or zone and make a pre-snap check based on the defense's reaction. In addition, New England will simply take advantage of White's skills as a pass catcher to exploit a linebacker's coverage deficiencies in space. How many times have we seen the Pats target White on option routes on the backside of a 3x1 formation? Better yet, how many times have we seen White win on a slant or a go-route against a linebacker?
With that in mind, the Eagles needed to have a plan in place to minimize White's impact on the game as a pass catcher. Jenkins' ability to match White's quickness and burst took away one of the Patriots' most explosive playmakers and forced TB12 to look elsewhere with the game on the line. White finished with two catches for 21 yards.
Sure, Brady was able to rack up 500-plus passing yards with three pass catchers topping the 100-yard mark, but the elimination of White from the passing game shouldn't go unnoticed.